Like the French Algerian Meursault and Holden Caufield after him, the character of Lester Burnham has soared above the peak of lively resentment and been canonized as one of the great antiheroes of modern pop culture. His presence in “American Beauty” plays to the ongoing call for the everyman’s rejection of procedure, which has been necessitated by the steady decline of the modern workforce in a culture that imprisons them in cubicles and conforms their thoughts to a script of faux courtesy. Traces of that distinction were first visible in the comedy “Office Space,” released in the same year, but this was the moment where the ideology found its most unflinching force: a man whose brutal honesty felt like a nudge towards obliterating the conventional wisdom. Consider how much of the film about him involves the silent bewilderment of supporting players, right down to a wife and daughter who can only look on, in stunned silence, while a pathetic shell of a man suddenly discovers his voice. Perhaps they are surprised to find he still has a spine. Perhaps they are mourning the inability to continue using him as a scapegoat. Or maybe it’s because they can no longer see beyond the ceiling of what he is gradually tearing down.
The film’s early scenes perpetuate all we expect of their suburban doldrums. Breathe in the details of this stoic family routine: housewife and real estate agent Carolyn (Annette Benning) feigns respect to her new neighbors while discussing roses, a daughter named Jane (Thora Birch) manifests her self-loathing in internet searches about breast augmentation, and the withdrawn Lester (Kevin Spacey) seeks private release by masturbating in the shower. They function, but only to the purpose of holding together an illusion of purpose. Each regards one another with almost insufferably sardonic commentary, although there is little effort to retort, perhaps because it is easier to pretend they aren’t listening rather than provoke one’s fangs. Meanwhile, players in the periphery assemble from the same end of the cesspool: a haughty real estate agent (Peter Gallagher) who feeds his fragile ego with unlikely infidelities; a high school cheerleader (Mena Suvari) who thrives on sexual attention; a teenage boy (Wes Bentley) living next door who regards his surroundings behind a camera lens; his father (Chris Cooper), a former military man, who rules over others like a man hiding unknown insecurities; and a housewife (Allison Janney) that moves mechanically through conventional procedures while remaining vacant in the foreground.
These are the people who will come to play a part in how this family transitions: as peers, troublemakers, escapes, distractions, even romantic interests. There is a sense, behind the blinders of their delusion, that no one is programmed well enough to manage themselves, much less the well-beings of others. That is the nature of their culture. Yet if they accept this, what does that say about who they were well before? Is it just easier to exist, unbothered by empathy or a moral compass? Lester asks these questions as he moves gradually through this world, roused from lethargy and resentful of the mindless drudges attempting to conform him into a proverbial punching bag. Towards the end there is a moment where he sits, in total contentment, as if newly discovering an identity that seems foreign to him. To be that resolved, that satisfied with how everything has transpired, is to discover a good person inside yourself when you were convinced that nothing more was possible than apathy.
The movie is primarily about his journey to that point, expedited by a series of events that occur to him over the span of a few weeks (“the last days of my life,” he ominously warns in an early voiceover). An early moment at the office underscores his looming mid-life crisis, during which he is berated for his lackluster performance as if the words were being provided from a textbook. That sours his outlook. And why wouldn’t it, given what he knows about sketchy business practices that have gone on ignored while men like him are constantly scrutinized for much smaller offenses? The exchange between him and a detached supervisor frame an outlook that is consistently disturbed by the women who occupy the shadows of his home life: a wife more concerned about appearances and prestige and a daughter who would like nothing more than to disappear entirely from their feigned concerns.
What rouses him the most has become the film’s most divisive point of contention: a series of flirtatious exchanges between he and Jane’s close friend Angela (Suvari), a cheerleader whom he becomes infatuated with. During a routine on the high school basketball court, his mind wanders into what can only be described as a predatory fantasy, where he imagines her dancing seductively before undressing in slow motion while he looks on from the bleachers. That might be questionable in the grasp of less steady hands, but director Sam Mendes uses the moment to establish a persistent stylistic touch involving rose petals, which play like a psychological trigger; they represent greener pastures just beyond the line of sight for these people, a goal to reach for while those in the periphery continue to stew in the dirt of a lifeless garden. Later exchanges, involving carnal glances and eavesdropping on revealing conversations, might have soured the material if they had been taken too far, but the movie does not cross the border, perhaps because Lester, even while being desired by a teenager, knows enough of boundaries to not completely sacrifice personal evolution.
Meanwhile, the movie cuts between the supporting players as they, too, ride the shockwaves of this behavioral change. An incident at the dinner table in which Lester throws the family dinner against the wall – all while remaining collective – provides a critical catalyst; it inspires rebellious strides in both Carolyn, who starts an intense affair with a colleague, and Jane, who begins to regard the voyeuristic tendencies of her teenage neighbor (Bentley) as endearing rather than creepy. Are they healthy changes? Of course not, but that’s hardly the point – they crave something that has been taken away from them by the system they are slaves to. Less observant viewers would assume they know nothing about happier times, but notice how Mendes fills the edges of his frames with pictures and mementos, as if to stress their decline. The Burnham family was once a united front, but now has settled into the slow boil of a passive existence.
Loveless marriages and familial alienation are hardly fresh movie devices, but what separates “American Beauty” from most of its close relatives – including “Ordinary People,” the movie it is most consistently compared too – is how it deals with the trajectory of its characters. This is not a film interested in sympathizing or observing the emotional tendencies with some level of warmth. These are pathetic, meandering people whose tears indicate defeat, not sadness or remorse. And because they meet the change forced upon them with such decisive severity, it adds a profound emphasis to the movie’s broader thesis. The trick, for some, was getting beyond the scornful tone; there are moments between people where the arguments escalate quite uncomfortably, leaving the audience bewilderment. Are we supposed to be shocked, or humored? The screenplay by Alan Ball was wise to view the events primarily through Lester’s derisive eyes; because he can only bring himself to playing off the ridiculous procedures with dark humor, it underlines our observations without distorting them into anything melodramatic or depressing.
The supporting players, nonetheless, handle their own well enough to provide emotional outlets. Thora Birch was relatively new to the scene when she took on this role, but her brash approach made her the ideal vessel for Jane, a girl who is uncertain of all things except her loathing of all things traditional. Her pairing with Wes Bentley, the shy but alert teenage boy next door, was a wise one – his quiet disregard for the order of things provides her a key release from her poor self-image, and the two have scenes together that are a good balance of quirky and sweet. On the other hand, Annette Benning and Chris Cooper – the most controlling influences in both households – underline the material with a sense of foreboding possibility. They bury their anger so convincingly that they seem more like ticking time bombs than actual people: she who is destined to release a spark in frequent intervals, he as someone who won’t reveal the depth of his hand until one final explosion. To imagine sharing their company for any two minutes is to find yourself bewildered by the patience of those they keep company with them for much longer intervals.
Yet somehow, they were the sorts of people who were easily deciphered during the movie’s first run in theaters, when I first saw the film and gave it a positive – if reserved – review. I admired the drama going on between them tremendously, but didn’t sense the desperation silently working through them. It was as if they were dictated by the satirical touches of a filmmaker in ecstasy of their torment. What I came to realize after repeated viewings, especially in recent years, is just how sad and pathetic they really are, even beyond their obligation to the film’s cynical worldview. How did Carolyn, indeed, go from being a motivated professional with love and family to a shell who could no longer see the good sense of others? Why did she put up with Lester for so long when he offered so little in terms of support or affection? There is a priceless scene between them in a fast food drive-through that emphasizes how easy it is to offer support while having difficulty in accepting it. People try to be better, however warped they may be, but maybe it means nothing if the gloom has warped their ability to recognize good deeds.
The public consensus has mostly remained unchanged in the 20 years since “American Beauty” debuted; it was heralded from the first moment at the Toronto Film Festival as one of the sharpest family dramas ever made, was on hundreds of ten best lists and went on to win many of the coveted top trophies at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture. At the time, its victory was broadly seen as the pivotal dividing point between the old ways of studio output and the informal bravado of a cluster of avid new filmmakers, who used to camera lens like a shovel uprooting the dying roots of tradition. Sam Mendes was, in that moment, playing the same game with a handful of emerging new talents who too would become celebrated for their audacity. Darren Aronofsky. Christopher Nolan. Todd Solondz. Nearly twenty years later most of them remain at the peak of relevance, with films that function like great intellectual challenges. Sometimes that has even inspired successful mainstream integration, particularly with Mendes; after directing the James Bond film “Skyfall” in 2012, some suggested he singlehandedly saved a franchise that was languishing in the throes of exhaustion. If we are to split those sorts of hairs, perhaps this picture did the same for dysfunctional family dramas.
The one footnote that may undermine the movie’s endurance is the controversy Spacey has courted in the recent years, where he has repeatedly been accused of sexual misconduct from a handful of victims – some of them underaged. If we actively attempt to separate the art from its troubled artists, Spacey has made the possibility more difficult: his behavior draws such distinct parallels with Lester’s own troubling fantasies that he invites all the obvious contextual comparisons. That is unfortunate given the sharpness of his performance, which goes far beyond the necessity without ever being pitched over-the-top. We admire Lester even knowing how pathetic he is. The question is whether audiences in the coming generations will be able to regard him with the same sense of respect while knowing the despicable behavior of his portrayer. We are in an era when the crimes of celebrities, after all, have unraveled entire legacies. The great consolation is knowing “American Beauty” was piloted by filmmakers who had a sense of this low moral fiber, and gathered to make a movie that absorbed the skill of others while indirectly dropping a hammer on their seedy private lives.
Written by DAVID KEYES